Former Laotian General Vang Pao, a prominent Hmong leader in the United States, was one of ten men arrested by federal law enforcement agents in California last week and charged with plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. The news sent shock waves through Fresno, California, home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the U.S. As Sasha Khokha reports, elderly Hmong veterans there are emphatically defending General Vang Pao and the other leaders, while younger Hmong are pushing to refocus public attention on the community's positive contributions.
Inside the studios of a Hmong-language radio station in Fresno, talk show host Tracy Yang is struggling to keep pace with the phone lines, blinking red with an endless stream of callers.
They want to talk about the arrests of top Hmong leaders.
Many of Yang's listeners are Hmong elders, who rely on her to deliver the news each morning. Now they're calling in to say they can't eat and sleep since hearing that General Vang Pao has been arrested. My heart is broken, says one man. Why is the U.S. arresting a man who was its best friend during the Vietnam War?
A lot of them are saying they're very angry, they're upset. One of the callers says that with the September 11, because President Bush is the President of the United States, he had to take action in protecting his country and his people, declared war on Iraq. And because General Vang Pao took action, how come he is being prosecuted because of the little step he's doing trying to take to protect his people?
That outrage is reflected among many older Hmong refugees, especially veterans, like Chu Houa Xiong. He says he and other Hmong have always been loyal to the U.S. government, since the time he served as a young soldier for CIA-backed Hmong forces.
Many American soldiers were injured during the war and Hmong soldiers took care of them. The U.S. should think back to the time when it wanted help against the communists and General Vang Pao and the Hmong were there to help.
Xiong wipes away tears with a handkerchief as he talks about General Vang Pao's arrest. The General is not guilty of terrorism, he says. If anything, he was trying to help the Hmong who remain in Asia, who it's alleged have been persecuted, even killed, by the Laotian government.
There are still thousands of Hmong in the jungle today. How come the U.S. doesn't do something about it but allow them to be killed by Lao communists? Why?
Xiong says it feels like a bitter betrayal to watch a leader once paid by the U.S. government to fight communism - now jailed for allegedly continuing that fight from his adopted homeland.
The younger generation is also responding to the arrests - less by defending the actions of General Vang Pao and Hmong fighters 30 years ago, than by emphasizing that they're Americans today. Last week, a group of young Hmong activists held a community dialogue in Fresno, part of an effort to ward off racial stereotyping following the arrests. Mai Ka Yang posed the question that was on many minds:
24-year-old Shee Yee Xiong says he'll leave it to the courts to decide whether leaders like General Vang Pao are guilty. In the meantime, he wants his neighbors to know that Hmong-Americans are here to stay.
That's why we want to send a message out to the community, that goes to law enforcement [so it affects] the decision they make, that we are hard working people, we make a lot of contributions, and we're here to stay, we have all those mortgages to tie us down.
Others Hmong leaders in Fresno say precisely because General Vang Pao helped so many Hmong adjust to U.S. society, the sting of the arrests is even deeper.
Students are practicing reading English at Lao Family Community, one of several branches of a refugee assistance organization General Vang Pao helped found. Executive Director Pao Fang says the General is like a father to him - and to many other Hmong, he is like the George Washington of their community. For Fang, even if the General is guilty of the charges, it should not outweigh the good that he's done.
This just a small thing that he had been coming to do one wrong thing bad, what about the 99 percent that he contribute to this nation and elsewhere?
Listen to our audio files for Lao translation.